Electronic Design

Memory Technologies Duel To The Death For Fame And Glory

It’s no surprise that memory technology will get smaller and faster this year while running on less power per bit. But the competition is getting stronger, and it’s coming up on high noon as these technologies try to wipe each other out in the battle for your system—and everybody hopes to be the last one standing once the silicon dust settles.

NAND Flash No Longer Has Hitch In Giddy-Up
NAND flash has been relentlessly pistol-whipped over the past few years. But financially, the latter half of 2008 looks pretty good (see the figure). According to Joseph Unsworth, principal analyst of NAND Flash Semiconductors for Gartner, NAND flash revenues were down about 7% in 2007 but are expected to grow this year by about 29%, with a bit growth of 166%, mostly in the latter half of the year.

Unsworth also expects 2009 to be a “decent year” for NAND as it coincides with DRAM’s recovery from a tough 2007. Portable devices, especially video-capable gadgets like the iPhone, will drive the demand. In fact, the cell phone is expected to become the hub of storage for music and movies, not the PC, and it will connect to home electronics via the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI).

So how will NAND experience revenue increases, bit demand growth, and a drop in price over the next few years? There are three primary reasons: process shrinks, added manufacturing capacity, and the technology push to get multilevel cell flash to 3 and 4 bits per cell.

DRAM Wounded In Shootout at O.K. Corral
Like NAND, DRAM got winged in a gunfight over inventory and pricing, and 2007 was a tumultuous year. But iSuppli Corp. says that although the bit growth will slow down this year, the supply and demand should be more balanced. The research company also expects a revenue increase of 17.5%.

A few years ago, the graphics community decided that double data rate (DDR) technology wasn’t cutting it and developed graphics DDR (GDDR) technology. According to Lane Mason, memory market analyst for Denali Software, similar trends should continue in spaces like digital TV if the volume is there. And, don’t expect DDR3/GDDR5 to make a huge ruckus this year. Instead, the transition will take place in 2009.

As speeds increase, expect more technologies like Rambus’ FlexPhase to help ease layout. “As signaling speeds continue to increase, debug, validation, and manufacturing are becoming more complex,” says Steven Woo, technical director of Rambus. “The ability to capture and understand signals as they appear in operation, without introducing effects due to probes, is becoming more difficult. And, being able to compensate for manufacturing variations that are part of the production process is becoming more challenging as well.”

Meanwhile, embedded DRAM is the new sheriff in town and bringing embedded SRAM to justice one partial socket at a time. As a result, embedded DRAM will take over L3 caches to save area, power, and cost while maintaining roughly the same speeds due to process shrinks.

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills
Some promising new memory technologies are on the horizon, but most are several years away. These deputies in training include magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM), phase-change RAM (PRAM), and ferroelectric RAM (FRAM). Their primary challenges will be in manufacturing and in gaining cross-industry acceptance. In the meantime, expect the usual activity in making memories smaller, faster, and cheaper.

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